Few people learning a new skill set would want to do so using 40-year-old technology. Unfortunately, that was the exact scenario facing students enrolled in the ProStart program in Rolling Meadows High School in Rolling Meadows, Ill.
Students were working in the original kitchens, which were roughly 40 years old, and they resembled a residential environment more than a commercial foodservice operation. Kimmi Drendel, the class instructor, was motivated to improve the classroom experience to become more like a commercial kitchen with the hopes that the students might one day pursue careers in the foodservice industry.
Unfortunately, Drendel faced several financial challenges in getting the school's ProStart facility updated. "For the past three years this project was on the books to be done but something always got in the way," she says. Drendel decided to let her students' cooking do the talking. She invited one of the district administrators in for lunch and she cleaned her plate. At the same time, she saw the challenges the class had in terms of equipment, layout and the like and worked with Dr. David Schuler, the school district's superintendent, to get a green light for the project.
With her project approved, Drendel worked with consultant Kristin Sedej of S2O Consultants, local rep firm Mirkovich and Associates and dealer TriMark Marlinn to develop a new kitchen/learning lab that features some commercial grade equipment and improved work flow.
"You can work faster, and the quality of the food is better," says Celina Flores, a senior and one of the students enrolled in the class. "It really feels like you are working in a restaurant and that is pretty special."
One of the big points of emphasis in the newly designed kitchen is sanitation. The facility now includes a three-compartment sink, an under counter dishwasher, disposer and hand sink. As part of teaching students how to work with this equipment, Drendel schools them in proper chemical use. "Teaching the importance of sanitation is the hardest thing but we seemed to have set this part up right because the students have learned it," she says. Other new pieces of foodservice equipment include a commercial range, convection oven, reach-in and roll-in refrigerators, ventilation system, shelving and stainless steel prep tables.
During class Drendel draws on her 10-plus years' experience working in the restaurant industry as a server by assuming the role of shift manager while the students become the culinary staff. "There are lessons but I want them to read the recipes and interact with the equipment," she says. "It is important for them to see their mistakes and learn how to correct them."
As part of learning what it is like to manage a foodservice operation, Drendel's advanced ProStart class hosts two lunches a year and, on occasion, prepares food for other events such as a dessert table for parent-teacher conferences and a breakfast for school administrators. Planning for these events can be pretty comprehensive and can include addressing such financial components as pricing out menus. Like most foodservice professionals, the students will arrive as early as 6 a.m. to begin food prep and stay late to complete the cleanup process. "Prepping for these events is a really cool experience," Drendel says. "In the morning they are really nervous and really concentrate."
And those that work the front of the house for one event will switch to the back of the house for the next event and vice versa. "Both sides of this business are so different," Drendel says. "But the customer comes first in the restaurant industry and they have to learn that."
Oftentimes, as these events play out, Drendel is learning along with the students. "A lot of the things we make, I have not made before," she says. "But you can't know everything in this industry. I try to teach what I know but encourage the students to share their thoughts and experiences if they know of a better way to do something. And the more responsibility I give them the more they step up."
Many of the students seem to relish the opportunity to have more responsibility. "When I come to this class I have put in more effort compared to other classes. I have a big smile on my face when I walk into this classroom," says Freddy Estevane, a senior. "I love cooking."
But the class seems to have taught the students more than simply how to cook. "The class taught me to be creative, love what you do and it is ok to bring your own background into the kitchen and do your own thing," Flores says.
Estevane adds, "You won't always get things right the first time. It may take a few tries."
Flores agrees and adds, "The class taught me it is ok to believe in yourself, and when things are not going well you should set the negative stuff aside and try to push forward."